After returning from a trip to Italy to celebrate 5 years of survival with cancer, Ann Hartline has immersed herself in painting at her studio in the River Arts District in West Asheville.
Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Ann Hartline believes in clinical trials and in living life large with metastatic breast cancer.
“The clinical trials over the past year gave me options and opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had,” said Ann, 47, who celebrated her five-year anniversary of living with tumors in her brain, liver and lungs with a month-long trip to Italy in June.
“I know that clinical trials aren’t for everyone and that not everyone who participates in a trial benefits, but for me they’ve made a difference. And I’ve grown in more ways than I could imagine.”
For nearly a year, Ann participated in a national clinical trial at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center for women with breast cancer who also have brain metastases. Upon completion of that trial, Ann participated in another trial at Vanderbilt University. Knife-free radiotherapy surgery on the tumors in her brain followed and was conducted in Asheville where Ann lives.
“The clinical trials helped stabilize my disease,” Ann said. “I opted for the surgery on the brain tumors, too, although I was terrified and I knew there was a risk of seizures as a side effect. Sure enough, they happened. I thought I was gone.”
But “gone” took on new meaning as Ann began dreaming about going to Italy to celebrate five years of living with metastatic disease. “I have a dear friend who lives there and I’d never visited,” Ann said. “Besides, I’d been through a lot.”
Ann, the former cardiac nurse who took up painting whimsical animal portraits after her breast cancer diagnosis, got busy making note cards of her favorite paintings to sell to finance her celebratory trip. Those sales, a few commissioned works and donations from friends and family took care of the airfare.
With an oral chemotherapy “to protect me from the neck down” and her daily anti-seizure medications, Ann spent 30 days in Italy, despite her medical team’s counsel that she should only stay two weeks and some family members’ worry that she shouldn’t go at all.
“I generally have a good temperament and even in the most dire moments I try to keep a sense of humor, but sometimes I get ornery, especially if I’m tired and need a change,” Ann said. “I had decided I was going for a month, regardless. You don’t get a ‘get-out-of-death-free card’. I could die in Asheville or I could die in Milan.”
The worst that happened?
“I had an allergic reaction to bites from a swarm of Italian mosquitoes,” Ann said. “My over-the-counter antihistamine wouldn’t touch it, but a prescription medication did the trick. Otherwise, I had a great time seeing beautiful country and visiting with wonderful people.”
Upon returning from Italy, Ann has immersed herself in painting at her studio in the River Arts District in West Asheville. Ann has been invited to display her work at Asheville’s Early Girl Eatery beginning in January.
“I’m thrilled and flattered by that invitation,” Ann said. “I miss my work as a nurse, but painting brings a lot of joy to my life and helps me reach a lot of people. I love my life here in the mountains, and although I do miss being so carefree—my anti-seizure meds mean I have to rely on others for transportation—I think I still have a bit of that left in me. I just have to remember to ‘go for it’ as we all should.”
Ann returned to UNC Lineberger in late July for routine scans and the discussion of participation in another clinical trial. The news was good.
“My disease had not progressed enough to make me eligible for the trial,” Ann said. “I did start a new maintenance chemotherapy that I receive in Asheville, thankfully. Studies have shown this infusion works best in patients with genetic and triple-negative breast cancer like mine. I do believe in UNC Lineberger and know I can go back there whenever I need to.”
While in Chapel Hill for the clinical trial, Ann stayed at SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals. Family House provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.
Sometimes, on follow-up visits, Ann was referred to local hotels, which, in agreement with SECU Family House, offer special rates for patients when there is no room at the house.
“Sadly, from Sunday night through Thursday night, we turn away far more families than we are able to serve,” said Greg Kirkpatrick, executive director of SECU Family House. “Fortunately for these families, 10 local hotels partner with us by offering our guests significantly reduced rates when we are full. We are so grateful to those hotels, and we hope we can continue counting on them as the need for temporary housing for UNC’s seriously ill patients and their families goes through the roof.”
Carey Anders, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the division of hematology/oncology, co-principle investigator in the national study and leader of Ann’s medical team at UNC, calls Ann “a remarkable patient.”
“Ann has been proactive and persistent in her care and treatment,” Dr. Anders said. “She’s embraced the new therapies and trials as viable options for her. She uprooted herself and traveled from her comfort zone in Asheville to participate in that first trial. She has never let fear overwhelm her. I applaud her on so many levels.
“And while we as her medical team are thrilled that her disease has not progressed, we miss seeing Ann in our clinic regularly,” Dr. Anders said. “She’s always so calming, doesn’t get rattled and always brings a sense of humor. She’s beautifully infectious that way. There’s always a buzz and energy when Ann’s here.”
Earlier this fall, Ann attended the wedding of her younger sister Katie, a nine-year breast cancer survivor. Ann, Katie, 42, and older sister, Kelli, 50, all carry the BRCA-1 mutation, which indicates an increased risk of breast cancer. Kelli remains cancer-free.
“Our mother died of breast cancer at 36 when I was 10 years old,” Ann said. “I remember her saying ‘I pray you girls live to see the day when there is a cure for breast cancer’. I like to think that my participation in clinical trials has gotten us closer to that goal. I participate in clinical trials as much for her and other women with breast cancer as for me.”
Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, firstname.lastname@example.org